Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ten Essentials for Your Pantry

Here's another article that I wrote years ago, in 2004 I think, for the Northern Virginia Daily with some ideas that home chefs can take away from restaurant cooking to improve their own. The advice that I wrote so long ago still seems pretty relevant.

Ten Essential Foods for Your Pantry

The well-stocked restaurant pantry at One Block West has hundreds of ingredients—everything you might imagine from rice flour to palm sugar to Tarbais beans. Here are ten essentials from our pantry to help you glamorize your home meals.

1. Gloss it up. To add just that little zing of flavor to a finished dish, buy a good extra virgin olive oil to drizzle over your white beans, minestrone, or fresh sliced tomatoes. Olive oils range from light, mild and buttery to sharp, pungent and herbal. Taste several and buy one or two that you like for glossing up a finished dish. Cook with less expensive oils though.

2. French fundamentals. Learn from the French. Demi-glace is stock reduced until it is syrupy and coats the back of a spoon. Save your bones in a bag in the freezer and then once every couple of months, roast the bones and some vegetables, and cook your stock all day. Strain and degrease the stock and return to the fire. Keep reducing until it is syrupy and freeze in an ice cube tray. Or buy some preprepared demi-glace at a well-appointed kitchen store. A tiny bit will finish a pan sauce or add body and depth of flavor to a soup.

3. Aged with grace. Take a second mortgage and buy a small flask of aged Balsamic or Sherry vinegar. Nothing finishes a steak or a slice of perfect heirloom tomato like a single drop of 50-year old balsamic vinegar.

4. King of the woods. Although expensive, a few dried porcini mushrooms go a long way to giving soups, stocks, stews, and risottos an incomparably rich and woodsy flavor. Add a handful to your next pot of white bean soup and you will be hooked.

5. Forget me not. Use the forgotten onions—shallots and leeks—for flavoring and discover subtle flavoring nuances that separate restaurant cooking from home cooking.

6. Fresh is best. The number one thing you can take from restaurant cooking—liberal use of fresh herbs, in sauces, in marinades, in salads and dressing, scattered on a finished dish, and for garnish.

7. Old salt. Ordinary modern table salt is the one salt we do not use. For brilliant, nuanced flavor and outstanding texture, try finishing a dish with a salt harvested from the salt marshes of France the way it has been for centuries—the incomparable grey fleur de sel.

8. Bring the heat. When you need to spice it up, think beyond vinegary Tabasco®. Try Sriracha from Huy Fong Foods for pure flavor and chipotles en adobo (smoked ripe, red jalapeños) for that extra hint of smokiness.

9. Grate finish. Nothing says class like grating a hard cheese over a dish to finish it. No need to spend a mint on Parmigiano—we like the more affordable sheep’s milk pecorinos better for all around use. Save the Parmigiano for eating out of hand.

10. Go east. Sauces from the Orient such as oyster, hoisin, black bean, soy, and white soy are chef’s playtoys. Each brings different flavor nuances to a dish and the thicker ones such as oyster and hoisin sauces are great for decorating plates.

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